This week, a 28-year-old welder called Craig Moore discovered just how hard it is to give our digital backdrop the slip when he was jailed for blowing up a speed camera. Snapped for driving too fast, Moore drove back later that evening and blew the offending machine to smithereens, forgetting that its hard drive was as sturdy as an aeroplane's black box recorder. In a double whammy, Moore was damned not only by the images on the smouldering hard drive, but by the tracking device fitted to his van by his employer.
At least Moore knew what he was up against. In the age of ubiquitous digital equipment, with more cameras and mics lying around than there are on the set of The Truman Show, it is all too easy to unwittingly find our activities captured in digital form. We all know by now that we can be clocked on CCTV cameras, and snapped by camera phones, but it's only relatively recently that we have realised the vulnerability of a simple conversation. Last week, a speech by George Bush to mark the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina was interrupted by snatches of ladies' room gossip by a CNN news anchor who didn't realise her microphone was still switched on. A month before that, a private chat between Tony Blair and George was broadcast to the world via an unintentionally open mic, and two of the most powerful men in the world were caught joshing each other like superannuated rappers.
All this can be filed under "peer-to-peer surveillance" - the emerging idea that the constant operation of a whole range of digital devices will increasingly be used as evidence against us by parties other than the state. Many of us have already encountered it, when we find ourselves listening to others' muffled conversations deposited on our answering machine by erroneously dialled mobile phones. Thus far, much of the eavesdropping has been by accident, but there are more sinister possibilities. Many of the new mobile phones come armed with the facility to record conversations, and digital voice recorders are now so small as to be inconspicuous.
As applications are designed to imprint the date, time and location in which photographs, conversations and videos are made, and mobile tracking devices increasingly allow us to pinpoint the location of others, we can predict consequences for everyday life as well as the legal system. If mobile phones are currently an accessory to infidelity, for example, the new range of mobile devices may overturn that arrangement: a suspicious spouse can easily chance upon video, picture or location-based proof that you were not where you said you were, or commission evidence in support of their case. The notion of "your word against mine" might soon be redundant; it will be "your word against my digitally enhanced sound recording". The democracy of surveillance, however, might not be as bad as all that. Ever since Rodney King was videoed being beaten to a pulp by the Los Angeles police, trend-spotters have waxed lyrical about the potential for digital evidence to hold wrongdoers to account.
Thirty years ago, in the paranoid thriller The Conversation, Gene Hackman's professional wire-tapper becomes obsessed with the content of a conversation that he has been hired to listen in on, but subsequently finds that someone is bugging him, too. At the time it was made, the film was supposed to be an indictment of the machinery of surveillance staffed by shady state functionaries of the military-industrial complex, but what if the surveilled and the surveillant turn out to be friends or colleagues? As reserves of trust in contemporary society continue to erode, we might begin to suspect that the other guy must be wearing a wire.
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